The case of the disappearing byline

For most journalists, whether staff or freelance, their byline is their showcase, their shop window. It is how you get work, and how you get known; also, how you survive.

But now, along with all the other bad things happening to journalists, bylines are, on some publications at least, in danger of disappearing altogether.  

In the very early days of newspapers, bylines were extremely rare. It was more usual for stories to be headed ‘By our own correspondent’ or ‘By a staff writer.’ Many women’s magazines used house names or pseudonyms for their writers.

All this changed as journalism gradually stopped being a secretive, anonymous profession and became something to boast about. Big bylines, picture bylines, became the journalist’s equivalent of actors having their name in lights.

Now, it seems, it’s changing back to anonymity – and nobody but me, it appears, is objecting.

For several years now, many women’s magazines have got away with putting the writer’s byline up the side of the page, in such tiny point you need a magnifying glass to read it. The fad started with homes and interiors magazines, and then spread to weekly magazines and tabloid Sunday supplements. The magazine Take A Break, one of the highest-circulation weeklies, is a particular offender for grudging its writers any kind of byline at all, and you will search hard to find a decent-size credit line in once-great magazines such as Woman and Woman’s Own.

And now, the Guardian G2 section has followed suit, and shrunk the size of its writers’ bylines along with shrinking the fees. The two things appear to go together. Nobody values journalists any more, so the can be paid peanuts for the privilege of not having their work properly acknowledged.

The BBC, which has a whole host of magazines, goes even further. Not content with paying its staff and freelance writers hardly anything, they credit television presenters with the story, rather than the poor bugger who actually wrote it. This happened to me when I wrote something for BBC Good Homes – after, I may say, they approached me as a potential contributor. When I was sent a copy of the magazine and saw a presenter’s name and picture on my story, instead of my own, I angrily protested, only to be told it was ‘policy’. Not long after that, the magazine ceased publication.

While on the subject, I was also approached by a new homes magazine, Inside Out, to be a contributor. When I asked about a fee, answer came there none. I said, “Do you honestly expect me to write for a Murdoch magazine for nothing?” Again, the curse of Liz operated and the magazine only came out for about three issues before disappearing into the dust.

If you query this practice, or more accurately, malpractice - you will usually be told that the tiny byline is a matter of ‘design’ and it’s all down to the art editor. Bollocks. Nonsense. It’s yet another way in which the jobbing journalist is no longer valued, and has no means of protection, no way of insisting on any kind of better treatment. No wonder all the kids on media studies courses want to be columnists. It’s because they see the huge bylines of the favoured few such as Polly Toynbee and Allison Pearson, and this encourages them to read the copy, and imagine they can do the same. A byline draws the reader in, even if that name means nothing – at first. It’s how you get known in the first place.

I am a particular champion of the decent-sized byline because it’s how I got my first job in Fleet Street. I had, as a freelance, written a piece for the Sunday Mirror and although I was then a struggling unknown, it carried a big byline, my first such in a national newspaper. Within a week of that piece appearing, I was offered a staff job at the Sunday People. Such a thing would never have happened unless the byline had caught the attention of somebody in a position to offer me a job.

In those days, the tiny byline up the side of the page hadn’t been invented. It’s now time to un-invent it and start giving journalists their proper due as writers. The magazines and newspapers have been allowed to get away with it for far too long, and if we all keep quiet, the trend will only continue.

Gentlemen Ranters web site